October 6, 2021

Starting a Law Enforcement UAS Program (Part 1)

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The success of several pioneering Law Enforcement UAS programs has prompted many other departments to follow suit. Case studies repeatedly highlight the advantages that unmanned aerial systems provide in public safety.  Tactical operations, patrol functions, accident reconstruction, and search and rescue all benefit from UAS support.

While its benefits are appealing, starting a UAS program involves much more than buying a drone and putting your name on it. A department must consider the mission, budget restraints, community image, and legal implications to name a few. In this blog, we will provide an overview of these aspects needed for the launch of a successful drone program.

Defining the Mission

Before launching a police drone program, identify the needs of your department. Will your UAS program augment an existing Air Support Unit? Is the drone in question be the only aerial asset available? Will the aircraft be a first responder? Or, will it deploy during special incidents (search & rescue, SWAT operations, crime scene, and accident reconstruction, etc.)? How large is your area of jurisdiction? Finally, no question is as important as this one. What kind of budget has your department allocated for this effort?


These are some of the questions that need to be answered. Some of the answers may come from an analysis of department data. Consider the frequency of certain calls, their location, and resources. Other answers may come through collaboration with other divisions in the department. Defining the mission profile of your UAS program will determine three things: the type of regulations that apply, the model of aircraft needed, and the type of training.


Regulations are critical aspects of the process to figure out. Despite being a public safety pilot, keep in mind you are not exempt from federal regulations. Night operations, flights over crowds, and Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights all face restrictions. Therefore, taking time to figure out what limits you face will determine the proper waivers and training required.

Operators have two options for approaching flight regulations. One of those options is a Part 107 license. The other is a COA or Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for Public Aircraft Operations.

Part 107

The FAA’s Part 107 brings UAS operations into the National Airspace System. One of the benefits of operating under Part 107 is the extensive training available for pilots and proof of instruction. Furthermore, pilots train under national standards which assists in the deployment of UAS outside the area of jurisdiction. However, there are some restrictions under Part 107.

These include:

  • An operating altitude limit of 400 feet AGL (above ground level);
  • Visual Line of Sight operations only;
  • Liability falling solely on the pilot; and
  • Daytime flights only

Under Part 107, you must obtain waivers and special permission for:

  • Night operations
  • Flying over crowds
  • Flights in Class B, C, D, and E airspace
  • Access to restricted airspace

Keep in mind that Part 107 suits civil operations best; it may not serve the needs of your public safety agency. Its relative ease of entry, however, may be enough to compensate for the additional restrictions.

Certificate of Authorization

Unlike Part 107, a Certificate of Authorization (COA) offers enormous operational flexibility to public safety agencies. But it does so at the cost of a longer and more difficult approval timeline because the plan needs to be approved by the FAA. Once approved, your UAS program will be able to:

  • Fly in applicable regions of controlled airspace,
  • Integrate a night operations waiver directly into a COA, and
  • Fly over people with specific safety measures

Defining the mission profile and researching the applicable regulations will establish the foundation of a law enforcement UAS program. In the second part of this series, we will discuss various aircraft options used by other agency pilots. In addition, we will be covering training course considerations available on-site or at our headquarters.

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